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Carcassonne: worth the trip?

4 Sep

Carcassonne Towers

I have long wanted to go to the historic, fortified walled city of Carcassonne, a UNESCO world heritage site, located in southern France, with its fairy-tale looking defensive double walls, castle, drawbridge, watchtowers and cobbled streets.  Not only was I fascinated with it, I had read about and seen enticing photos of the five-star Hôtel de La Cité, located in the heart of the medieval citadel, and relished the idea of staying within the walled city. The hotel has the traditional, comfortable luxury that I favor, with inviting outdoor spaces and great views of the expansive valley below.

 

I had initially flown directly from Alicante, Spain to Toulouse, in the region of Occitanie, scheduling the first three days in Toulouse. For the fourth day, I booked the Hôtel de La Cité. Carcassonne is only a short, scenic 40 minute train ride from Toulouse. Unfortunately, I misjudged how long it would take to get from my hotel in Toulouse to the train station due to having to navigate around the old town and to get a ticket for my dog from an agent. Fair warning, I was able to book my seat on the train via the internet but not for my small dog, which had to be done in person at the train station. So I took the next train, an hour and a half later, with my small dog, Pepper, (AKA Pimienta) in his portable, wheeled carrier.

Pepper (aka Pimienta)

 

The train station in Toulouse had a piano permanently located in the waiting area, and many people spontaneously sat down and played. It’s these little serendipitous things that contribute to my passion for travel. There was also a foosball table, which kids and adults stopped to play. Be aware that in many train stations in France you need to get to your train by walking under the train tracks via stairs. If you have mobility issues and/or a heavy suitcase, it can be challenging. Allow extra time or if you are disabled, request help when booking your ticket.

 

Barbacane alfresco dining

Whenever I take public transportation like a train or bus, I try to go one timeslot earlier than my needed arrival time, in case something like this train trip goes awry. So even though I left an hour and a half later than initially intended, I still arrived on time at the hotel where I had scheduled to eat at the hotel’s Michelin star restaurant, Barbacane. Lunch was in the lovely garden area with views of some of the wall, watchtowers, and the valley below where Carcassonne residents now live. The prix fixe three course lunch which included two courses, each served with a glass of wine selected by the sommelier to pair with the food. Water was included and a choice of dessert or a cheese plate at the end, all for a quality, reasonably-priced meal of €39. Pepper sat quietly under the table.

 

Dog-friendly garden patio

 

After lunch, we went to my room, which was spacious, with elegant furnishings, a great bed and a menu offering a variety of pillows from which you can choose. Knowing I was bringing my dog, they gave me a room with stairs that led down to a garden area, where Pepper could do his outdoor duties. There also was a table and chairs on the upstairs patio. I was surprised and pleased to see they had a dog dish with water in the room ready for Pepper, the first time I have ever experienced that. And there was no extra charge for the dog, whereas normally there is.

 

After settling in to the room, I went out to explore the rest of Carcassonne within the walled citadel. The area is pedestrian with the exception of an occasional delivery vehicle, but it was very crowded with summer day trippers. There are a few buildings and museums worth exploring.

Saint-Nazaire

The Gothic-Romanesque Basilica Saint-Nazaire dates back to the 12th century and has beautiful stained glass. The rest of the buildings largely house touristic shops selling regional specialties including food (foie gras, cassoulet, truffles, and olives), local wines, knight-themed items, and cafes and restaurants.  It felt more like a crowded theme park than a historic site. I had only booked one night at the Hôtel de la Cité, as I first wanted to see if I enjoyed it enough to stay longer; I was glad I did. I considered exploring some of the other areas of Occitanie, but ultimately decided to head back to Toulouse and explore it further.

 

I used the internet to find a last-minute hotel reservation for the next three nights in a different area of Toulouse than my initial stay. After I arrived, I told the taxi driver the name of my hotel, he said it was just a short distance, waving his hand toward a large boulevard. So I walked, and walked, and walked. The hotel was not straight down the street, and I wandered for a while, luggage and dog in tow in the heat. I stopped for a cooling beverage, where I could ask the staff for directions. Feeling slightly refreshed and optimistic, I again set off for my hotel. An unexpected finding was that there were three hotels within a two block area that had the same name as the one I booked. Well actually, the main name was the same, with a slightly different second name. I finally found my hotel, which I initially found shockingly spartan after my stay at a five-star hotel. After I got over my initial dismay, I found the room adequate, particularly as I don’t spend much time in my room, and it was a dog-friendly hotel. I spent the next three and a half days in Toulouse exploring different neighborhoods, historic sites, and scouting out delectable food. I am already thinking about a return trip to Toulouse.

 

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Toulouse Travel Tips

20 Aug

Capitole Plaza, my hotel on the right

Living in Spain provides me the luxury of being able to travel to nearby places, like Europe and Africa, at very inexpensive costs. I initially explored the idea of travelling in central Spain this August, but it was too hot, and then Prague and Budapest, but the direct flights from where I live were not available in August. Preferring direct flights, which have a decreased chance of delays, I explored other options and decided to go to Toulouse and nearby Carcassonne, which are at the base of the Pyrenees in southern central France, not far north of Andorra. The flight is only about an hour each direction, which cost me €61 each direction, and €72 round trip for my small dog, who traveled in the cabin under the seat in front of me. I spent a week in the Toulouse area.

 

Typical building

Toulouse is the fourth largest metropolitan area in France, and the Occitanie area (formerly Languedoc-Roussillon) in which it and Carcassonne are located is the largest geographical region in France. Toulouse is known as the “pink city,” due to the many buildings made of pink stone and bricks. It is a walk-friendly city with distinct neighborhoods, which are the types of large cities I favor. When I first arrived, I stayed for three days at the Grand Hotel Opera, centrally-located on the large Capitole Plaza. It was a good starting spot, with cafes and restaurants serving drinks, snacks and higher-end cuisine. I do not like shopping, but there were a variety of shops/stores on or near the plaza, surprisingly including a number of U.S. stores like Sephora and Foot Locker, and other popular European stores.

 

Before I arrive at vacation destination, I try to get a basic familiarity with the areas and places I would most like to visit. I am a foodie, so I read up on the typical regional cuisine, recommended restaurants, as well as live entertainment. Obviously once I arrive, I get a better feel for the area, and make my plans accordingly, but I leave room for a great deal of spontaneity which can result in serendipitous finds. One such occasion occurred when I walked to the local fruit and vegetable market, where I decided to have lunch at one of the many nearby restaurants. I noticed it was cloudy and looked like it could rain, so I found a restaurant, Le point Gourmet, with a good awning coverage of the outdoor area, and most importantly, good food.  I was too late to get the daily special of duck hearts, fresh from the market, as they were already sold out. But my duck breast, duck-fat fried pommes frites (French fries), and salad were delicious.

 

Seafood pasta

While sitting at the restaurant and waiting for my food, it started raining. Many of the diners not under cover frantically arose, trying to grab food, beverages and belongings. Most handled it with aplomb and humor, but one family where I was dining, got into an argument with the owner, which became quite heated. After they diners left, the French owner, who spoke very good English, (I only speak English and Spanish), said the three patrons were blaming him for the rain, and he replied he was not God. He correctly mentioned that there was only a brief rain, and the patrons nonetheless said they would not pay for the food. There was some more heated discussion, with their continued verbal attacks and complaint about their mother being disabled, to which the owner said his wife, who was still working long hours at the restaurant, had cancer. They finally left. The owner then told me the following story: “God made France, with beautiful landscapes, oceans, vegetation and so on. When he finished, God said, France is perfect, everything. It is too perfect, so I am going to put French people there.” Hilarious!

 

Salade Gourmande

The food in the Toulouse area is regionally-based, as is common in Europe. They are famous for their cassoulet, foie gras, sausages, many types of offal (veal kidneys, gizzards, hearts, and sweetbreads), fantastic variety of cheeses, predictably delicious bread and baked goods. Most places offer quality, affordably-priced prix fixe menus, not as inexpensive as where I live in Spain, but far cheaper than you would pay for comparable food in the U.S. Also, the regional wines are excellent, usually inexpensive, and frequently available in varying amounts like 15 ml, 50 ml, and 75 ml (respectively, a glass, a little more than a half bottle, and a full bottle.) For those who live in Spain, Toulouse does not cafés on every block or even several on every block like there are in Spain, which I realized when I looked for a place to duck into when it started to rain.

 

Statue Joan of Arc

The other thing I did not anticipate were the operating and closing hours for businesses, with many shops closed either in the afternoons or early in the evening, and also many places, including restaurants, are closed on Sundays, holidays and during parts or all of August.  I failed to check the holiday schedule before I booked my vacation, only to learn that there was a religious holiday, Assumption Day, in which many businesses were shuttered.

 

The Toulouse and greater Occitanie area offer numerous entertainment and outdoor activities. In Toulouse, there are the expected ancient and historical buildings and museums. There was a jazz concert series during the summer featured such icons as George Benson and Wynton Marsalis. The Garonne River and Canal du Midi offer great spots for events and leisure. There and in the Montagne Noire, nearby mountain range, offer opportunities for outdoor and physical activity enthusiasts. Winery tours in the region is another popular and easy day trip from Toulouse. Toulouse also boasts Europe’s largest space center, which also offers venues oriented toward children.

 

Garonne River

After my first three days in Toulouse, I took the short 45 minute train ride to the walled city of Carcassonne, where I spent the night, at the fabulous 5-star Hôtel de la Cité and ate at their Michelin-star restaurant, Barbacane, which I will write about in a subsequent blog post. I also plan to share my restaurant reviews from Toulouse which I will publish on TripAdvisor: they recently reported I have over 100,000 readers of my reviews!

How to Apply for Non-Lucrative Visa or Residence Visa for Retirees for Spain as US Citizen

11 Jun

Due to popular demand, I am re-posting my series of blogs about how to get a “non-lucrative (retirement) visa to live in Spain. I have just completed my second renewal, which was considerably easier than my initial application, mostly owing to my experience at submitting  the correct documents. Here is my most recent visa, with personal info redacted:

Spanish visa/NIE card

 

 

At the time of my first post in July 2015 about the process of  how, as a U.S. citizen, to apply for a non lucrative residential or retirement visa to reside in Spain when I discovered this excellent and informative blog post by Jed on www.bucking-the-trend.com on February 17, 2014. So with his permission, I instead posted his blog, and then added my experiences where they were different. I was surprised to learn the requirements vary depending on which Spanish consulate you are required to apply. Here is Jed’s post:

How to Apply for Non Lucrative Visa for Spain as US Citizen – Bucking the Trend.

MY EXPERIENCES IN APPLYING FOR A “RESIDENCE FOR RETIREE” VISA

The process for applying for a non-lucrative visa to live in Spain as a U.S. citizen varies with which consulate you are required to go through. WHAT??? I thought the process would be the same since it is a national visa, but with some research online, and then personal experience, I was surprised to learn the requirements were sometimes different.

 

My first inkling about this came when I tried to inquire from the Spanish consulate in Los Angeles about the requirement of providing documentation of having a place to live in Spain, yet having to be in the U.S. to apply for and wait for the visa.  I had read a number of stories about the capriciousness of whether or not visas were issued by the Spanish government, so I was reluctant to rent a place in Spain without an assurance of being issued a visa. Moreover, I did not want to pay for a place which would sit empty for many months or possibly until the lease expired. When I initially contacted the L.A. consulate and naively asked how I was supposed to be in the U.S. yet have a permanent address in Spain, I was simply told I had to do everything required on the application.

 

When I inadvertently got on the San Francisco Spanish consulate website, there were different requirements, with no mention of the need for documentation of housing ahead of time. I wrongly assumed that the requirements would be the same across consulates, so I again contacted the Los Angeles consulate, (my mandated consulate based on living in San Luis Obispo County), noting that the San Francisco consulate did not have the housing requirement so did I have to at the L.A. consulate, to which I received the same response as my first contact with them, that I must do everything required on the application. They added that the requirements can vary depending on the consulate.

 

So I “relocated” to the San Francisco Bay Area with my son, and with my new address in Marin County, I submitted my visa application, sans documentation of a place in Spain to live. Interestingly, after booking my appointment via internet to submit my visa documents, when I showed up for my scheduled appointment, the man asked about my housing documentation. In my best, albeit slow Spanish, I smiled and explained that I did not yet have a permanent place to live in Spain because I would do that as soon as I arrived. Apparently, that was acceptable to him. Although it should go without saying, bring patience and politeness to your appointment at the consulate. I have seen curt and even rude people, whose behavior interfered with achieving their goal of getting a visa.

 

Also, on the San Francisco consulate’s website, they had a specific application “Residence Visa for Retirees,” which the L.A. website did not, although the requirements are largely the same with the exception of the variation between consulates. There are additional documents required to submit for those with a spouse and/or children.

 

There is a requirement to have all documents translated into Spanish. Living in California with many translators, I thought that would be easy. However, as with any time one deals with the Spanish bureaucracy, things were not that simple. I inquired as to whether a certified Spanish interpreter in California would qualify, and was told, it depended. The Spanish government may or may not accept the translation. As there were many documents that needed translation, including the reasons you want to move to Spain, criminal history check, medical certificate, medical insurance with no deductible, proof of minimum retirement income, with some documents requiring notarization, I tried to find a translator who was certified by the Spanish government. The first person I found was located in Spain, and after she learned I was in the U.S., she said she could not do the translation. The Spanish consulate website had a link to interpreters, but it was not working. I finally got someone at the consulate to send me the list of certified translators. One was conveniently located in the San Francisco Bay Area, and we exchanged documents by mail. She was fabulous, quick and met all translation requirements.

 

There were also some deadlines about how long you had to retrieve your visa from the consulate once notified of approval and to travel to Spain. One has to show proof of flight/travel arrangements when retrieving your visa, and the travel has to be scheduled within a short time, which generally means high flight costs. I got my notice of approval of my visa just shy of three months after I applied, and was required to pick it up within a few weeks. My flight to Spain was two months later.

 

In my next posts, I will discuss taking a pet to Spain, the procedures required once in Spain to actually get your Residential Visa/NIE card, and the first renewal of my Spanish visa.

 

Spain: Residential Visa Renewal

26 Apr

“Come back after 30 days to pick up your new Spanish visa. You don’t need an appointment; you can pick it up between 9:00 and 2:00,” she told me in Spanish. HURRAY! This was my second renewal of non-lucrative (non-working) residential visa/NIE card.

This time the renewal process was surprisingly easier than my initial visa application (the first part done in California and the completion once I arrived in Spain), as well as the first renewal. The best part of this visa renewal process was that I no longer had to travel twice from Altea to the provincial capital of the area, Alicante, which takes about an hour each way by car. Instead, I was able to get my fingerprints “huellas” appointment at nearby Benidorm, and also pick up my visa there.

Part of the reason this application was easier was because the requirements were the same as the first renewal application. I keep a file of each application with copies of all documents including what to submit and the documents I submitted. Before starting, first check the government website to make sure the requirements have not changed. The reapplication can start up to 60 days before the visa expires, and up to 90 days after it expires. For your convenience, I have included the links to the internet sites I used, which I filled out, then saved and printed. I cannot guarantee the accuracy of these links, as they sometimes change or are not working; the latter was the case for the government website when I initially looked for it.

I then proceeded to complete and print EX-01. I then asked my financial adviser to draft a letter regarding my financial status, demonstrating that I met the minimum monthly income requirement. In my case, I used my private retirement account, and also the projection of what I would receive from Social Security once I reach 62. Attached was a recent copy of my retirement account showing its monetary value, and the most recent Social Security Statement, which can be found online. I review the email draft for accuracy, and then have the original (which is required) with an original signature by the document’s author; the signature must be notarized. Once I receive the original and notarization, I take it to an official translation office to have it translated into Spanish by a certified Spanish translator.

I made a copy of my current Spanish medical insurance which shows it is in force and that there is a zero co-pay. Since I did not have a Spanish bank account, I found a local agent who could issue the annual policy with an annual cash payment rather than the standard monthly bank deductions. My annual policy is around $1100 U.S.

I also made a copy of both sides of my current Spanish visa (NIE) card, and all of the pages of my U.S. passport. Since I had just renewed my passport, there weren’t any travel stamps on any of the pages, but one has to copy all of the pages regardless. (I was able to renew my passport by mail by sending it to the U.S. Embassy in Madrid; I received my new passport in less than two weeks, paying the shipping fee to the delivery driver.)

There are additional requirements if you have minor children, which are described on the government website. The instructions are generally in Spanish, another good reason to learn it; the staff at the visa application offices often do not speak English. If you have problems understanding or implementing any of the requirements for the visa, for a fee, you can employ a gestoria, a person who is experienced in dealing with the vagaries of the Spanish bureaucracy.

Next, I went to the local Oficina de Extranjería with all of my documentation to make sure I had everything correct. I had gone online to print Modelo 790 codigo 052 and printed it, but I was told I still needed to go to the bank to pay the 15,76 Euros. Make sure your address on file in Spain agrees with the documents you are submitting.

If there are any problems or missing information, you receive a certified letter. Once all documents were correctly submitted, I received an email with instructions for setting up an appointment for fingerprints. As with the whole process, the instructions are in Spanish. However, they do show photos of which items to click on the website. They also say to leave blank the box entitled “Fecha de Caducidad de su tarjeta actual.” After you select the best appointment time, they email you a paper with the appointment date, which needs to be printed and brought to the appointment, along with printed form Tasa Modelo 790 codigo 012, which has to show paid; my fee was 18,54 Euros. While it did NOT say it on that instruction sheet, you also need to bring your passport, current Spanish visa, and photos, which are described in the visa initial application instructions. I saw numerous people turned away from the office for such things as lack of an appointment; not bringing a valid passport, current Spanish identification card, paper showing you have paid the fee; or one parent bringing a child to register him/her but not having both parents present as required. The varying 790 forms need to be paid in advance, at a bank, where they are stamped.

At the appointed police office, I had an unusually short wait compared to typical wait times at a Spanish government office. They took several fingerprints of each of my index fingers, took the photo I brought to be on my new visa, and reviewed my Spanish visa and US passport, along with the paper showing my appointment date and time. The clerk then gave me a paper designating when I could return to pick up my visa, noting the hours, and that I need to bring that paper, my Spanish visa, and U.S. passport. While the clerk told me to come back to retrieve my visa card after 30 days from the appointment with her, she did not mention that the card must be retrieved before 45 days after the appointment; otherwise, the availability of the picking up the new card expires (which I read on the bottom of the form.) This second visa renewal was completed about three months after first submitting my application, only two months after my visa formally expired, as compared to a prior renewal which took eight months.

Here are links to my prior posts on getting a Spanish residential visa: https://starrtreks.com/2015/07/09/how-to-apply-for-non-lucrative-visa-for-spain-as-us-citizen-bucking-the-trend/; https://starrtreks.com/2015/07/26/patience-and-tenacity-requirements-for-obtaining-a-spanish-residential-visa/; https://starrtreks.com/2015/08/09/you-must-be-kidding-steps-to-get-a-spanish-visa/.

What have been your experiences in getting or renewing a Spanish visa?

16 of My Favorite Spanish Foods

13 Feb

I have decided to revisit some of my favorite meals and foods here in the Costa Blanca area of Spain:

img_0356

First course beachside at La Maja

grilled artichokes

grilled artichokes

Chopitos (fried baby squid)

Chopitos (fried baby squid)

Flan

Flan

Composed salad with goat cheese

Composed salad with goat cheese

Cocido con pelotas (traditional regional favorite)

Cocido con pelotas (traditional regional favorite)

img_0607

Sample of tapas served complimentarily with wine or beer

Paté plate

Paté plate

Seafood salad

Salad with cheese and ham

John Dory fish with salad and fries

John Dory fish with salad and fries

Sautéed fish with veggies in saffron sauce

Sautéed fish with veggies in saffron sauce

Seafood salad

Seafood salad

Jamon

Jamon

Grilled octopus

Grilled octopus

Pimientos de padron

Pimientos de padron

Paella with rabbit and calamari

Paella with rabbit and calamari

 

 

 

Inside Secrets to Spain: Top 3 Tips

19 Nov

Here is my article about Spain which was just published in Insiders Abroad:

http://www.insidersabroad.com/spain/blogs/inside-secrets-to-spain/posts/gallery-thumb-thumb-thumb-expat-spotlight-dawns-top-3-tips-for-spain

Summer Fun in Altea Spain

21 Aug
Summer in Altea's Casco Antiguo with craft booths

Summer in Altea’s Casco Antiguo with craft booths

While Altea (Spain) always has many entertaining activities, summer brings additional fun offerings. Ever a music fan, I appreciate the variety of city-sponsored live bands playing at various outdoor venues, including 40’s style Big Band, jazz fusion with a Mohawk-sporting accordion and keyboard player, flamenco, regional (Valenciano) folk music, to mention a few. I also went to a rock jam session held on Sunday afternoon at a local tram station, which had an eclectic, inviting atmosphere.

 

IMG_1947

One of the 60 mural paintings hanging from balconies in Altea’s Casco Antigua

In Altea’s hilltop Casco Antiquo, (Old Town), the church plaza and the walkway to it, which are sparsely filled during the winter months (as exemplified my Facebook cover photo), are now packed with throngs of visitors and locals. This month in Casco Antiguo there are a display of 60 painted murals by different artists which hang off balconies, hence named Balconades d’Altea. Also during the summer in Casco Antiguo, there are many artisan craft booths featuring various types of original art, jewelry, leather and more. Most restaurants in Casco Antiguo are open for the summer season, with many types of cuisine available such as Spanish, French, Italian, and other ethnic cuisines.

 

 

 

L'Olla fireworks

L’Olla fireworks

In June, we had the San Joan (Valenciano) for St. John festival, which features water-inspired activities, including parades and midnight bonfires at the beach, which normally are prohibited. Another popular summer beach activity is the spectacular firework display, Castell de l’Olla, over the Mediterranean. People head down to the beach with beverages and/or picnics for the midnight show, which this year lasted over 30 minutes. Alternatively, people may watch the show from the comfort of their balconies or terraces, as I did, or a café in Casco Antiguo’s plaza.

 

During the summer, many people enjoy going to temporary, seasonal chiringuitos, beachside bars/restaurants, which offer full service food and beverages with tables, and shade, if desired. I recently went to bonavida, a great chiringuito on the beach where I love their fried fish and seafood plate. (I recently posted a short video from it on my Facebook.) On many of the beach areas, there are lounge beach chairs and umbrellas available for rent.

 

One of the water sports marinas in Altea

One of the water sports marinas in Altea

There are many water sports available with a number of seaside businesses offering such activities as snorkeling, diving, kayaking, boat rental, sailing lessons, fishing, kitesurfing, and more. I love snorkeling, and every Christmas school vacation, I took my three sons to warm spots with good snorkeling, such Australia, Belize, Hawaii, Mexico, and various Caribbean islands. The Mediterranean in Altea is warmest in July and August, reaching 25C/80F degrees. For me, that is an ideal snorkeling temperature, so I scheduled a boat snorkeling tour this past week. It was postponed due to unusual rain, so I went the following day. The water was not as clear as I was hoping and the sea life not as vibrant to those which I am used to, but it may have partially been due to the recent rain. I enjoyed it anyway. There are also places to snorkel right off the beach without a boat. The dive center from which I took my snorkeling trip was located at Greenwich Marina/ Pueblo Mascarat. It was my first visit there, and I discovered new restaurants, and live music venues, including one, Macao, with outdoor lounge seating, which I plan to soon attend.

 

In the towns adjacent or near Altea, there are also many activities. This week-end there is the three day Festes de L’Albir, (Fiesta of Albir) with a car parade, children’s activities, food and beverage stand, music, games, and walk to the iconic lighthouse. Several bars in the Albir beach area offer live music, including soul, Latin, rock, comedy to name a few. Bar Cuba is one of my favorite spots, which offers complimentary bachata or other types of Latin dancing at 2000 on Saturday evening, and live Latin music for dancing Saturday and Sunday evening. They also feature other dance lessons throughout the week such as kizomba, salsa, line dance, and mambo for a nominal fee. I enjoy the instructive and professional complimentary bachata

Salsa class at Bar Cuba with Ray

Salsa class at Bar Cuba with Ray

lessons with Andres Ledesma so much, I took some small class private lessons with him.

 

What are your favorite summertime activities?